County looks to long-term use of theater
Economic development department soliciting expressions of interest for Bethesda landmark
Montgomery County is soliciting a group to help revitalize the Bethesda Theatre, a historic Wisconsin Avenue landmark that has struggled financially.
"The biggest challenge is that the theater is not economically viable without a full-time operator and a business plan that will produce contributed income meaning corporate sponsorships, philanthropic gifts, something other than the box office," said Steven A. Silverman, director of the county's Department of Economic Development. Silverman is on the board of the Bethesda Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit formed to manage the theater after it left its management company last year.
The department will look at partners who could book the venue, however, Silverman said, "the goal is to have an operator who will come in, take over the debt, and run the theater. That would be the best case scenario."
Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, said that the structure represents the history of the Bethesda.
"It's really important to our community that this theater stays and keeps on going and is successful," Italiano said.
The theater opened as an Art Deco movie house in 1938. It has more than 650 seats, a concession stand, box office and marquee. It was later incarnated as the Bethesda Cinema and Drafthouse in 1983 and the Bethesda Theatre Café in 1990.
It closed in 2001 and re-opened in 2007 after a $12 million renovation by the Bozutto Group, in conjunction with development of The Whitney, an apartment complex that sits above the theater. Bozutto received more than $2 million in county and state tax credits for the project.
Bozutto donated the Bethesda Theatre to the Bethesda Cultural Alliance in 2006.
A subsidiary of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment was brought in to manage the theater and produced off-Broadway shows there such as "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."
The sour economy and damage from a burst water pipe in 2008 prompted the theater to close temporarily.
Then, the Bethesda Cultural Alliance could no longer afford its contract with Nederlander, said Bethesda Theatre's managing director Tom Davis. The costs of staging productions would have been too high, he said.
"The board made the determination that the only possible way to go, at least in the near term, was to rent [the theater,]" Davis said.
The theater is rented for everything from jazz and alternative music shows to a cabaret series. On Saturday, it will host Montgomery's Got Talent, a talent show for seniors.
Davis said renting the venue has presented its own set of challenges. While Saturday nights are popular, he fills it about every other Friday evening. Weekdays are most challenging, he said. He has marketed the theater to businesses for corporate meetings, but he averages about one a week.
The rentals provide enough money to cover basic operating costs, but not enough to cover loans and debt, he said.
"We just want to see that theater full and continue to have really great arts initiatives to bring people to the downtown," said Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, a nonprofit charged with the marketing and upkeep of downtown Bethesda.
The request for expressions of interest was widely circulated, including to arts groups, Silverman said. The expressions of interest are due May 28. Groups would likely contract with the Bethesda Cultural Alliance, not the county.